Task Force Examines Troop Mental Health Assistance Programs
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2007 A special panel of health care officials learned how the military is addressing mental health issues experienced by some troops deployed in support of the global war on terrorism during a series of briefings held here today.
The 15-member DoD Task Force on Mental Health is co-chaired by Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley and Shelley M. MacDermid, professor of child development and family studies and director of the military family research institute at Perdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
The task force was formed through the 2006 National Defense Appropriations Act to examine the current state of military mental health practices and processes.
The panel is now collecting information through visits to multiple military installations, document reviews, specialists’ opinions and town hall-style meetings. The panel is scheduled to provide its report to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in May.
Reservists are assessed for mental health issues during both pre- and post-deployment phases, Army Maj. Clemens Presogna, a nurse and reservist assigned to U.S. Army Reserve Command, Fort McPherson, Ga., told members of the task force.
“After 90 days of return-to-country, all soldiers who have been mobilized complete a post-deployment health re-assessment,” Presogna explained, “which is another screening tool used to identify medical and mental-health issues that soldiers may have suffered from during their deployment phase.”
The Army Reserve also conducts chaplain-sponsored post-deployment rest programs for both returning married troops and single soldiers, said Army Col. Sumathy Reddy, a doctor of internal medicine who’s also assigned to the reserve command.
“We’ve had very good feedback on that,” Reddy said. “It basically concentrates on communications skills.”
Many mental health issues can be effectively treated, “but they have to be recognized in a timely manner,” Reddy pointed out.
Another initiative, the “Battlemind” training system, helps to prepare active and reserve-component soldiers for the stressors of war and also assists with the detection of possible mental health issues before and after deployment, Army Maj. Jeff Thomas, a research psychologist with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, said.
Such training is both prudent and necessary, Thomas noted, since studies show that 10 to 15 percent of soldiers develop post-traumatic stress disorder after deployment to Iraq. Instances of PTSD and other mental-health issues experienced by troops who’ve participated in combat operations usually increase over time, he noted.
Battlemind provides a more focused approach in assessing a soldier’s state-of-mind and overall mental health status after deployment to a war zone as compared to previous post-deployment assessments, Thomas said.
Battlemind examines “issues that soldiers and Marines face during different points in the deployment cycle,” Thomas explained. Peer-on-peer, or “buddy” discussions about mental health concerns after deployment are an important part of the Battlemind philosophy, Thomas pointed out.
Commanders and noncommissioned officers need to convey the message that it is acceptable for troops to seek out professional help to address self-perceived mental health issues.
“We really need to train and reinforce actions that soldiers, leaders and buddies can take,” Thomas said. The Battlemind system, he added, requires “emphasis on looking out for your buddy, and for small-unit leaders to look out for their soldiers.”
Another troop mental health assistance initiative is the Combat and Operational Stress Control Program implemented in October 2006 by the Marine Corp Reserve’s 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, said Dr. Tania Glenn, a military contractor who co-manages the program.
“This is a Marine-to-Marine advocacy and education program,” Glenn explained. “We are teaching Marines how to identify and help other Marines.” The COSC program utilizes peer-to-peer discussion and monitoring, she said, to assist in recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental stress and burnout among Marines returning from combat overseas.
Actively discussing mental health issues represents “a culture shift in the Marine Corps,” but not a massive change, said Glenn, noting the COSC program could be likened to adding high-potency vitamins to a servicemember’s normal field rations.
Returning Marines experiencing heightened emotions caused by “mindset conditioning” during combat tours are provided counseling and assistance while transiting to stateside assignments, Glenn said.